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July 20, 2017  

Welfare Reform

Its Effect on Social Workers and Their Clients
by: Hannah Fiske
June 24th, 2002

Welfare Reform Since the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which included Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), was enacted in 1996, the number of welfare recipients has declined by nearly 57%, according to a recent release from Health and Human Services. Between October and December 2001, the report states, the national number of recipients continued to decline slightly. Trends at individual state levels varied, however, with 37 states reporting caseload increases. This year, as policy makers wage a debate over the details involved in the mandatory reauthorization of the welfare program, the focus of many in the helping professions has been on the needs of individuals and families stricken by poverty—those who depend on government assistance for survival—and the best methods to assist them in becoming financially independent and self-sufficient.

The welfare program, as it is known today, has roots in TANF, the federal entitlement program that preceded it. “TANF basically changed the entitlement nature of the program and made it a block grant to states, with a fixed and limited amount of money available to each state based on a historic level of funding,” explains William Waldman, MSW, visiting professor and executive-in-residence in the School of Social Work at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick. Over the past 20 years or so, he adds, emphasis on the obligation of those receiving welfare to work has increased, reflected in waves of welfare reform promoting various employment programs for recipients.

Not only did the new law provide states with increased freedom in allocating block-grant funds, according to Waldman, but it also included work requirements, a lifetime length of recipiency of five years maximum, and strong sanctions against welfare recipients deemed noncompliant with program requirements. Permitting states to exempt only 20% of their welfare population, the law exempted from lifetime and work requirements the disabled, older adults, and those who care for a developmentally disabled family member, he notes. “This law was controversial, and many social workers didn’t support it,” Waldman adds. “They were concerned about what would happen to poor families if states were no longer obligated to support them.”

The Personal Responsibility Act represented a variety of changes, mirroring a public policy trend toward devolution, Waldman continues. “It is an extension of the idea that the federal government doesn’t do a good job of running large social welfare programs—that it inhibits flexibility and creativity that could be applied at the state or local level,” he explains. Despite the controversy surrounding it, the new law was passed at the height of the Clinton administration’s and the Senate’s push to balance the budget, Waldman adds, based on the concept that block grants could assist in this effort by providing certitude about federal welfare spending.
For the first five years of its existence, the program appeared to be successful, with welfare rolls decreasing by more than one-half—but to what should this success be attributed? Was it the economy or the program’s strong message about work and personal responsibility? Waldman believes the answer is found in both explanations. “The power of the public message could not be underestimated. As a society, we said, ‘Welfare should not be a way of life. It is wrong for people to stay on welfare forever,’” he says. “We have an expectation that able-bodied people need to be personally responsible.”

As the economy slows, however, many social and welfare workers fear the impact will be felt most strongly by welfare families who struggle to make ends meet, even during the best of economic times. “We have had this program in place for five years during a booming economy with the best of employment possibilities,” explains Mimi Abramovitz, DSW, professor of social work and social welfare policy at Hunter College School of Social Work in New York City and member of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Blue Ribbon Panel on Economic Security. “Now food pantries and homeless shelters are turning people away. Many women who found work and left welfare are telling us they can’t make ends meet. They are skipping meals and can’t afford to buy clothing for their children.”

Waldman agrees that decreased opportunities for low-skilled workers contribute to the difficulties faced by people attempting to become self-sufficient and leave welfare. “In the ’90s, there was a proliferation of jobs available, but the market has changed. If people want to be successful, they will need to improve their job skills,” he says. “We need, as a country, to change our approach toward human-capital investment by providing training and education.” Rather than simply increasing the number of work hours required each week of welfare recipients—one of the changes currently being debated by law makers and policy makers—he believes the United States would benefit from investing more money in training its workforce. “The truth is,” he adds, “that for people to get off welfare, it is important to spend a little more money per person to invest in support systems, such as childcare and healthcare.”

American culture is infused with strong work-related values, Waldman notes. The nation’s citizens not only tend to care deeply about their own careers, but also to reward those whose work they admire. As we move further into an age of globalization, developing and training the nation’s workforce will become increasingly essential to the nation’s well-being, he says. “Having a skilled workforce is critical if America is to be and remain competitive in a truly global economy,” he says. “The idea of investing in and training individuals to participate in the labor market will be an economic advantage and benefit the entire country.”

Work Supports
The ability to climb out of poverty is contingent not just on financial earnings, but also on the support systems that help families succeed in their efforts, explains Sandra K. Danziger, PhD, associate professor of social work and director of the Michigan Program on Poverty and Social Welfare Policy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “When people enter the workforce, they continue to need health coverage and childcare. Many of them are also eligible for food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit, but they don’t necessarily receive the assistance they need to access them,” she says. “All of those components help low-income families get by, especially if they are in low-wage jobs without benefits, such as health insurance. The noncash benefits that are part of the system are important, essential elements of programs that help people move out of poverty.”

Welfare recipients who are able to move forward and eventually go off welfare may need to maintain eligibility for benefits once they begin working, explains Danziger. Many states, she continues, offer earned income disregards that allow recipients to continue receiving reduced cash benefits while working. She believes it is equally essential, however, to maintain childcare, food stamps, and other transitional programs while recipients build work experience and begin the process of becoming self-sufficient.

In addition to childcare for young children, critical for many families is assistance for parents with older children, who frequently fall between the cracks, according to Jan L. Hagen, PhD, ACSW, also a member of the NASW Blue Ribbon Panel and professor at the School of Social Welfare, State University of New York at Albany. She recalls meeting a woman who was working two jobs, attending school, and had been able to go off welfare. “Her adolescent son began getting into mischief, and this woman’s only choice was to cut back on one of her jobs, drop out of school, and go back on welfare to provide him with the after-school supervision he needed,” she says. Her son needed the security of knowing his mother was home and looking out for him. To provide him with the stability he needed, however, the woman was forced to sacrifice an opportunity to increase her skills as well as the family’s income. This situation exemplifies the reason that “we need to have supports in place for all families,” she says, “particularly for single mothers who are trying to work and take care of their children at the same time.”

Barriers to Employment
Childcare and job-skills training are two obvious barriers to employment, but, for a large percentage of welfare recipients, there may exist hidden barriers identifiable only through a thorough screening and assessment program. At the University of Michigan, researchers have followed cases of welfare recipients since 1997, documenting what Danziger calls “a rich array of potential problems.” These issues, she says, correlate to poverty, single motherhood, and the ability to succeed in the workplace and include physical- and mental-health problems, substance abuse, and domestic violence. “We are consistently finding, for example, that this is a population with a high rate of clinical depression,” she explains. “This is a disorder most people could be diagnosed with and treated for if they had access to adequate healthcare.”
Problems arising from hidden barriers are inadequately addressed within the current welfare system, according to Danziger. “These issues, which would not come as a surprise to most social workers, are associated with women who remain on welfare and are unable to move ahead in the workplace,” she says. “When people have multiple barriers, they spend less time in the workforce, which means they also have less of a chance of succeeding in the welfare-to-work process.” If the barrier is identified and they are exempted, they risk remaining on welfare indefinitely; if the barrier remains unidentified, they risk being sanctioned and forced out of the welfare system, she adds.

Hagen explains that several states, including Tennessee and Utah, have implemented more elaborate case management systems and are developing improved assessment programs. Some programs, she adds, employ social workers to whom caseworkers can refer clients for more detailed assessments. “Many frontline welfare workers, who have experience with the initial round of the work-first programs, have been vocal about their desire to address and treat hidden barriers,” she explains. “They want to design more complex programs that allow an individualized, needs-based approach.” Simply increasing work requirements and striving to move recipients out of the system as quickly as possible without addressing the issues of hidden barriers, she adds, may have a negative impact on states’ ability to provide service-oriented programs.

On the Front Line
Those hired prior to 1996 to work on the front lines in welfare were basically trained to assess clients’ eligibility by processing them to determine their income and expenses, according to Cynthia Woodside, senior government relations associate at the NASW. With the advent of the 1996 welfare reforms, the nature of the job changed substantially. “They were no longer just checking to determine whether someone was eligible for the program, but were really charged with screening for barriers, helping people find jobs, and being a job coach once they found one,” she says. “The workforce was not sufficiently trained to take on these responsibilities, and they recognized this fact.”

The result has been that frontline caseworkers often struggle to perform all of their new duties, according to the findings of a national task force organized by Woodside to study the impact of TANF on the welfare workforce and to advocate for investing in improving the welfare workforce as a critical component of improving services and outcomes for welfare participants and their families. “Although caseloads have fallen dramatically in most parts of the country,” Woodside adds, “the actual workload has increased for most frontline workers.” Increased responsibilities and a lack of training to fulfill them have led to a high rate of turnover among frontline welfare employees, she continues, which means welfare beneficiaries rarely receive all of their benefits. In fact, research has shown that as many as one-third to one-half of families who leave welfare for work do not receive work-support benefits—such as Medicaid or food stamps—for which they are eligible, according to Woodside. “Improving the training provided to the welfare workforce would ensure better service for people forced to access the system,” she says. “The majority of welfare workers, however, continue to indicate that they are not receiving the training they need.”

“They are, for the most part, not trained in the helping professions,” Hagen adds. “The system lacks people with an understanding of the multiple problems that families encounter, as well as the ability to detect obvious or hidden barriers.” However, TANF has provided states with an opportunity to offer more in-depth assistance to those in need by forcing the system as a whole to become more service-oriented, she continues. “The problem here is that we are asking welfare workers to perform a job that is far different from the one for which they were hired, so we need to provide them with the training they need to succeed,” she says. To be most effective, Hagen advises, this training should include basic information about human behavior and problems, such as domestic violence and substance abuse. Also needed is training in communication skills to enable welfare workers to conduct interviews responsive to clients. “They need to understand how these issues manifest themselves,” she explains, “as well as their impact on peoples’ lives and ability to engage in employment.”

Trends in Welfare Reform
The recent decline in the economy, exacerbated by the events of September 11 and the war on terrorism, has been mirrored by a slowing trend in the decrease of welfare caseloads. Many in the field find this situation a cause for concern, worrying that a false sense of security may lead Congress to approve welfare reauthorization with potential to fall short of the nation’s future needs. “The states will not receive increases for inflation in their block grants, so, in a sense, they will have even less money than before,” Hagen predicts.

Although she recognizes that most states have been creative in their use of federal funds to provide services for welfare recipients, Hagen is concerned about how an increase in the number of required work hours would affect individual programs. “It won’t help the recipients,” she says, “and will place a tremendous burden on the states to meet their increased needs.” Additionally, welfare recipients forced to work 40 hours weekly in a world where most full-time employees work only 37.5 hours may find it difficult to become recertified for benefits unless welfare offices offer extended hours. A lack of attention to barrier assessment and work supports could also result in decreased gains within the system, according to Danziger. “Movement from welfare to work is slowing in states where the recession has hit,” she says. “Many welfare workers are finding it difficult to serve clients with such barriers.”

For more information on welfare reform, visit the NASW Web site at

Hannah Fiske
— Hannah Fiske
is a staff writer at
Social Work Today.

Social Work Today is a biweekly news and recruitment magazine for social workers.
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Copyright 2002 Great Valley Publishing Co., Inc
All Rights Reserved.

Social Work Today, June 24th, 2002, Vol. 2 No. 13

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